Contributed by Mark Wethli / Years ago I was fascinated to read about a theory that the grooves on ancient clay pots, like the grooves on a vintage music cylinder, might be playable. Given the right audio equipment, we might be able to hear the voices and sounds of the potter’s studio the moment the pot was being made. This beguiling notion came to mind while I was looking at the most recent work of Tom Butler at the Sarah Bouchard Gallery in Woolwich, Maine.
A British artist who divides his time between London, England and Portland, Maine, Butler is best known for his elegant manipulations of cabinet cards; professionally made photographic portraits from the late 19th century, measuring about 4 x 6 inches and mounted on card stock. Using gouache or collage, Butler adds intricate embellishments to the portraits, ranging from extraordinary coiffures to fractal geometry to minimalist blocks of color, obscuring the unwitting sitters. He also photographs himself in extreme poses, nude but tightly wrapped in black stretch fabric that reconfigures the body in surprising ways, hinting at Egon Schiele, Francesca Woodman, and Martha Graham but reflecting his own unique sensibility. Underlying both bodies of work is an abiding examination of veiling and concealment that is aesthetically appealing but also presents conundrums surrounding an elegiac sense of beauty, meaning, and identity.
Butler’s newest work builds on these concepts while pushing them to higher levels, creating a contemplative yet uncanny perceptual experience, with roots in the romantic sublime. While the materiality of the cabinet cards remains central to the work, this show manipulated them further, elevating Butler’s ongoing investigation of the photograph as an object and a cultural phenomenon by magnifying – quite apart from their function as images – the quietly dramatic textures, subtle embossments, photographic emulsions, and other characteristics inherent to their physical nature. This was akin, perhaps, to making audible the faint sounds embedded in the turning marks of an ancient vase.
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The show included five distinct but closely connected formal investigations: delicate graphite rubbings from the surfaces of the cabinet cards themselves, called Photorubbings, reminiscent of Vija Celmins’ drawings of the desert floor or deep space photography; highly evocative bronze casts of the cards, called Bronzetypes, that raise the question of their unexpected sculptural identity and their seemingly antiquated time and place; panel-mounted cabinet cards aptly named Ghostcards, obfuscated by layers of gesso, like small Robert Rymans, the original images barely visible if at all; a massive photographic print of a self-portrait holding a mirror, called Bright Corners 01; and the marvelous “Pencils of Nature” series, for which Butler has cut apart and laminated the cards into over 100 hand-made and burnished styluses in endless variations on the theme, presented like a display in an ethnographic museum. This last group is an eponymous reinterpretation of William Henry Fox Talbot’s evocative title of the first book of photography, drawing the viewer’s thoughts to the birth of that medium almost two centuries ago.
Each of the five bodies of work, though pointing in a similar direction, takes us there by a distinct means. While the images in the Ghostcards are nearly imperceptible, the Bronzetypes are manifestly present yet mute in other ways. And while the Photorubbings whisper like the shadows in an x-ray, the “Pencils of Nature” are playful and idiosyncratic, like objects in a 19th-century cabinet of wonders, with random glimpses of faces from afar. Taken together, the five bodies of work evoke a chord of emotions, like the colors of the spectrum, that combine to produce the conceptual equivalent of clear light.
It’s common to note that a photographic reproduction can never fully capture an artwork’s many subtleties, much less its essence. Struggling to comprehend the nuances in Butler’s inscrutable objects, we arrive at a similar precipice where the work itself seems unequal to conveying what it contains; or rather, we encounter the limits of our own senses, so fine are the works’ calibrations. On close examination, for instance, one end of a hand-crafted “pencil” reveals the typical cross section of an unsharpened pencil, with a small dot of lead in the center, while the other end, quite unexpectedly, shows two dots. It’s a small sign that something profound and significant has happened where it can’t be seen – hinted at by the title of the show and highlighting the quiet drama that a cosmic event might be taking place inside a humble object sitting on a table in a quiet room in the Maine woods.
All five series push our perception and imagination as far as it can go, redirecting our attention – like a Robert Irwin installation – to the phenomenon of seeing itself. Like a Zen koan, each piece draws the consciousness towards an unanswerable question, beyond which lie revelations that are more intuited than named. The result is a show that resists our facile attachment to the work and throws us back on our own devices. As if we were looking into a metaphysical mirror, the subject of the work becomes the hum of our own consciousness – an experience, normally blocked out by the noise of the world, that comes as an epiphany.
Key to this experience is the Sarah Bouchard Gallery, which is just wrapping up its first season. Like each of the shows that have been presented there it’s hard to imagine this exhibition
(and being installed as ideally as it was in this space. Situated far from the nearest cultural centers, the gallery is a destination location in the Maine woods, open by appointment for one person or one small party at a time. While that kind of viewing experience might sound elitist, Bouchard’s goal is quite the opposite: to cultivate a conscious experience of leaving the workaday world in favor of a retreat for the senses, to which all are welcome. Like a mini-Dia Foundation, Mass MoCA, or Lightning Field, the viewer is asked to make a commitment to viewing the work comparable to the one the artist and gallerist have made in presenting it.
Add to this the architectural perfection of the space itself, from the harmonious proportions of the room, to the perfection of its construction, to its fine balance of natural and artificial light, down to its finest details, whereby nothing interferes with or distracts from the work itself. Tom Butler’s new body of work and the Sarah Bouchard Gallery together created a quietly profound moment that promises exciting things to come from each.
“Tom Butler: Don’t Show This to Anybody,” Sarah Bouchard Gallery, Woolwich, ME. August 13 – September 18, 2022.